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The Story of a Trip Where No Man Had Gone Before: 'Apollo's Daring Mission'
December 26, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Space travel may have lost some of its visual cachet in an era when 7-year-olds can create their own intergalactic fantasy CGI, but there are still moments when the real thing gets pretty awesome.

One of those moments, or maybe more than one, pops up toward the end of Apollo’s Daring Mission, a documentary that airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on PBS’s Nova series (check local listings).

Apollo’s Daring Mission recounts the precarious history of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon. It ran for six days over Christmas 1968, making this its 50th anniversary.

Flown by astronauts Frank Borman (top), Bill Anders (top), and James Lovell (top), all former military pilots, Apollo 8 didn’t land on the moon. It circled the moon and returned – which sounds simple, but was revolutionary enough to carve out the trail that allowed Apollo 11 to make the landing less than a year later.

So while Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins of Apollo 11 are remembered as the first astronauts to land on the moon and plant human footprints on its dusty surface, the Apollo 8 crew is considered just as important in humankind’s first march to outer space.

In some ways, this Nova episode suggests, the Apollo 8 crew may have been taking an even greater risk. The whole philosophical thrust of this documentary is that NASA, the American space program agency, was using Apollo 8 to almost literally take a shot in the dark.

Several critical aspects of the technology that enabled the flight had never been tested, or had only been lightly tested, before the crew was blasted out of a relatively comfortable Earth orbit and sent a quarter million miles to the moon.

The Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo capsule had had testing issues. The engine that would have to propel the capsule out of the moon’s gravity field and back to Earth was subject to extreme stress during the flight, from 250 degrees above zero to 250 below. Would it still function?

The whole mission was being controlled by a computer, which would seem routine today but was wilderness territory in 1968.

Much of Apollo’s Daring Mission recounts all these technical and engineering issues. It focuses on the uncertainty and the risks and frankly, it gets a little geeky. Much of it is technology talk, probably of most interest to transportation engineering aficionados.

For more human-centric drama, Apollo’s Daring Mission traces the ways in which the tragic fire that killed three astronauts in a space capsule test on Jan. 27, 1967 reordered the whole space program. It forced NASA to rethink much of its technology and also reignited a paralyzing fear that America would lose the space race to the Soviet Union.

So Apollo 8, originally conceived as another test mission to orbit the Earth, suddenly became a moon mission. It was a Hail Mary – not reckless, exactly, but certainly a leap of faith.

That gives the mission an inherent drama, though of course we know today that it all worked out.

Some of the most poignant moments, then, are the smaller dramas along the way, like what happened when Apollo 8 emerged from the dark side of the moon for the final time before heading back to Earth.

There was no radio contact while it was out of sight, and when it came back into range, just as Christmas was about to break on Earth, the astronauts read the opening passages from the book of Genesis, about the creation of the Earth.

That was a profound moment for millions of folks listening back home, and it was punctuated a while later when NASA released a photograph Anders shot of Earth as it looked from Apollo 8: our great large planet as a tiny half-lit sphere in an infinite sea of space. It was breathtaking then and now, providing a much different perspective on our place in the universe. Or, if you’re not in the mood for cosmic reflection, it’s just a great picture.

We’re sure to get a lot of TV next summer on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, but Apollo’s Daring Mission is an impressive opening act.

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